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Davis Cheers Sale of Ranch

The governor and supporters gather at the Ahmanson site to celebrate its preservation and tout his record.

October 02, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Gray Davis, actor-director Rob Reiner and a crowd of environmentalists gathered on a knoll overlooking a former Chumash Indian village Wednesday to mark the state's purchase of Ahmanson Ranch, a sprawling cattle ranch on the eastern edge of Ventura County that was once destined for development.

In an appearance clearly designed as a photo opportunity for Davis, who faces a recall election in five days, the land deal provided a bright spot for the governor, who is lagging in the polls. His supporters made the most of the occasion, shouting "Three more years!" as Davis and his entourage approached the podium to the strains of U2's "Beautiful Day."

Even former gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington showed up to tout the acquisition and deride Davis' chief Republican opponent, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who she said would have turned the area into "a parking lot filled with Hummers."

There was much well-wishing among the partisan group of about 50 environmentalists and like-minded public officials, including Ventura County Supervi-sors Linda Parks and Steve Bennett, who attended the invitation-only event at the ranch adjacent to Los Angeles County. Reiner even initiated a group hug as he encouraged everyone to thank each other by embracing or shaking hands.

"We wouldn't be here if it weren't for all of you," said Reiner, whose entrance into the Ahmanson campaign 2 1/2 years ago provided the crucial star power and publicity the movement needed to gain widespread attention.

The 2,900 acres of rolling oak savanna were saved for the enjoyment of future generations, who will one day wonder, "How was it that this area came to be preserved?" said Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which will manage the state park.

Although preservationists had been working for nearly two decades to save the property from development by landowner Washington Mutual, it took the deadline of the Oct. 7 recall election to set the deal in motion. State officials and activists said a different governor might not have been inclined to purchase the $150-million ranch.

The property will be paid for with bond money that California voters approved last year to buy parkland.

"The state has presented us with a fair offer that allows us to meet our financial objectives now," Washington Mutual officials said in a statement Wednesday. "We have concluded that it is the right business decision for our shareholders to accept an offer that provides a complete resolution of this matter and a financially satisfactory outcome for Washington Mutual."

Although the development first was approved in 1992, lawsuits have stalled plans to build the $2-billion, 3,050-home golf course community.

Activist Mary Wiesbrock, who spearheaded the preservation effort, called the nation's largest savings and loan a "good steward" of the ranch and credited the Seattle-based company with helping to make her long-held dream come true.

"Look at that!" Wiesbrock said as she stood on the brush-covered hill overlooking a mesa said to be the former site of a Chumash village.

"Say what you want to say about the governor, and everyone has had something to say lately, there has never been a governor in the environmental history of this state that has done more for the environment," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Davis said the preservation of Ahmanson Ranch showed how community groups and the private and government sectors can work together "to get something done."

"I am so pleased that over the last five years, California has become a leader again in protecting our environment," Davis said. "Today's acquisition is a jewel in the crown of the 10,000 acres of urban parkland the state has acquired in the last five years, which is more than any other in the history of California."

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